Liverpool's five most improved players this season.
This Premier League season for Liverpool has been a success on an unexpected scale. Brendan Rodgers’ tactical nous when deploying varying formations depending on the opponent has been a vital component. However, without the growth of certain members of the squad, the quantity and regularity of fantastic results would not have been achieved.
1. Jon Flanagan first appeared on the scene under Kenny Dalglish towards the end of 2010-11 season. Liverpool had suffered injuries to first team full-backs Johnson and Kelly, and with nothing of any great magnitude left to fight for, Dalglish saw it as a perfect opportunity to throw him in at the deep end. He certainly did this, with his first 2 appearances being the full 90 mins against Manchester City and Arsenal.
For the remaining fixtures that season, he experienced a relatively extended run in the side. However, appearances became few and far between for the next 2 seasons as he became somewhat left out in the cold. These years spanned the end of Dalglish’s reign and the beginning of Rodgers’, and so with consecutive managers leaving him out, many wondered if it would ever work out for him at Liverpool. Flanagan did still have youth on his side, but his contract was running out, leaving the full-back unsure if he would ever get the chance to impress again.
Following a serious injury to José Enrique and the far from impressive form of loanee Aly Cissohko, the young Englishman was thrown into first team action against Arsenal at the Emirates. His performance was one of the few plus points to be drawn from a 2-0 defeat. He then followed it up with a highly impressive showing in the 3-3 at Goodison Park. So much had been gained from his peers that captain Steven Gerrard revealed afterwards that Flanagan was given a standing ovation upon entering the dressing room after the match.
He has never looked back since. Towering performances in the second Merseyside derby, the 3-0 defeat of arch rivals Manchester Utd at Old Trafford, and in the thrashings of the North London duo Spurs and Arsenal are of note. Truthfully, it has to be said that since his most recent emergence, he hasn’t had a bad game. His game intelligence and skill on the ball has come on leaps and bounds to partner his commitment and passion which have never been in question. While comparisons made in the media to the legendary Brazilian Cafu are somewhat premature, if his progression continues at the same rate then he has to be considered as a long term solution at right back for England. It has reached the stage now that serious questions would be raised if he was left out of Liverpool’s starting eleven, and who could possibly have predicted that in August.
2. Martin Skrtel was out in the wilderness for large portions of last season. Although he did start the campaign well and truly in the first team picture, he exhibited the odd lapse in concentration which lost Liverpool vital points. For example, he launched a misplaced back-pass to Pepe Reina at home against City which Carlos Tevez pounced on to rescue a draw. There were even times where he was physically dominated such as in the FA Cup shock exit at Oldham Athletic. Matt Smith gave him an incredibly tough afternoon and as the experienced centre-half, Skrtel took a great deal of flak for the loss.
He eventually wore down Brendan Rodgers’ patience so much that he was replaced by Jamie Carragher for the second half of the season. This was despite the fact that it was widely known that Carragher would retire at the end of the season. It was the general consensus that he would leave Liverpool during the summer, especially with interest from Rafa Benitez’s Napoli. Rafa was after all the man who brought the Slovakian to Anfield in the first place.
However no deal materialised and Skrtel started the 13/14 Barclays Premier League on the bench again. Kolo Touré; Carragher’s replacement, played instead, leaving Skrtel to be seen as the 4th choice central defender at the club. Big money signing Mamadou Sakho would surely be ahead of him in the pecking order, with the club expecting big things from him in the future. But as a consequence of injury and loss of form for other defenders, Rodgers was forced to bring Martin Skrtel back into the fold.
To his great credit, he has since gone on to make himself un-droppable. Even with the return to fitness of others, Skrtel has seen off all challengers. It is now a question of who will partner Skrtel in the centre of defence rather than who will replace him. He has taken his defensive prowess in the air; which has proved so vital in defending set-plays, and transferred it up the pitch. Seven goals from a defender is the best in the league, and it even includes a brace in the rout of Arsenal.
He was receiving criticism, and rightly I must add, for his ‘agricultural’ approach to defending set-plays. He was the perpetrator of so much shirt grabbing; and while he is certainly not the only culprit, a great deal of lime light was placed on him because of how blatant it was. Even that has improved in recent weeks, which has added security to Liverpool’s back line. The towering Slovakian has found the perfect balance between the raw aggression of an MMA fighter and the composure of Alistair Cook in his prime. He is never out-muscled, never out-fought, but most impressively now, never out-thought. Along with Flanagan, he has become a must start in Liverpool’s defence.
3. Jordan Henderson came with the pressure of a £21 million price tag weighing very heavily around his neck. This premium existed because he was young and English, making his talent that much more valuable with the impending introduction of Premier League home-grown laws. He was not initially employed in the correct position by Kenny Dalglish, meaning the Reds could not take advantage of his tremendous energy. Brendan Rodgers’ improved understanding of his key attributes and faith in his ability has led to a dramatic change in fortunes for the former Sunderland man.
A recent statistic has revealed that Henderson has played 99.2% of Liverpool’s total Premier League minutes this season. This is a stunning figure and goes a long way to show the high regard he is currently held in at Anfield. He has the legs to provide the link between defence, all the way through midfield and even lending a hand in attack. Showing the same dynamism of a younger Gerrard is a reassuring start for the legend’s possible long-term replacement, but as of yet, he has not matched Gerrard’s quality on the ball. He also possesses the stamina to keep going at this incessant pace for the full 90 minutes when others are tiring. Lung-busting breaks from midfield have often gone unnoticed but have made important contribution to goals on the counter-attack as defenders have been drawn away, allowing more space for others to do their best work.
Meanwhile, he has added goal scoring and assists to his game; achieving 4 and 7 respectively to date. The few times he has been rested, Liverpool have struggled to inject the right amount of pace into the game and their pressing tactics have been far less successful. Quite a serious concern for the Kop is how badly he will be missed for the next 3 games after picking up a straight red card in the victory against Man City.
4. Raheem Sterling became the second youngest ever player to score a league goal in the red of Liverpool at the beginning of last season after hitting the winner in a 1-0 victory over Reading in October. While the occasional performance that year was impressive, they were all too infrequent. Demonstrating the typical traits of a youngster and a wide-man generally, inconsistency was rife in his play style. His ball skills were relatively good, but relied almost entirely on his blistering pace.
This season however, he has been a much more regular fixture in the first team and has shown a greater level of maturity which is only increasing game on game. He has featured in 31 of the 34 Premier League games this campaign and has chipped in with 7 goals; a good return for a player who has previously had his end product questioned. These have included the vital first against Man City on Sunday; demonstrating the composure of a much more experienced professional, and helping to cement the 5-1 victory over Arsenal with a brace. His talent; previously raw and unpolished but absolutely clear for all to see, has been honed to become a crucial member of the Liverpool playing squad.
This year, he has been employed on either flank as part of a front three, as the tip of the diamond in a 4-1-2-1-2, and even as an emergency right wing-back at earlier stages of the campaign. Traits that he now regularly displays are marvellous game intelligence, maturity, technical ability, quick feet, vision, an eye for a goal, impressive strength for such a slight figure, and uncontainable acceleration. The progress of the QPR youth product has been so dramatic this season that if I was in Roy Hodgson’s shoes, he would be a serious contender for a starting berth against Italy in the World Cup, never mind the squad itself.
5. Luis Suarez has always been known to have an outstanding ability to beat a defender and an eye for the spectacular goal, but he has added a seriously prolific edge to his game this season. Without losing any of his other facets, he has also scored plenty of ‘ugly’ goals in addition to the exquisite volleys and free-kicks we have seen previously. However, so much has been said about his footballing performances that I do not wish to dwell on this.
His direct effect on matches on the pitch itself is not the only way he has grown this season. As I discussed in a previous article called Luis Suarez: The Path to Redemption, it was his character traits and ‘extra-curricular’ habits which threatened to derail his career. The marked improvement has only been able to be observed so vividly because of a change in attitude and the impression he now gives out. The Uruguayan is smiling much more, not diving, not producing stupid moments leading to controversy, giving extended interviews in English, and acting very graciously such as when he dedicated the shared Player of the Month award to Steven Gerrard, saying he deserved it more.
None of these things would have been seen from the Luis Suarez of previous campaigns, that is for sure. He has come out of his shell, and allowed him to be more likeable in the process. This side of character improvement cannot be undervalued as a contribution to the overall player he has now become.